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Aurora is remembering and preserving 100 years of stories through community gatherings.

The village’s historical society and volunteer fire department joined forces to create the museum's most recent exhibit, “Fire! A Century of Service: The Aurora Volunteer Fire Department.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a large fire that took place in February 1919, village Historian Linda Schwab said. It “basically destroyed most of what was then downtown Aurora,” she added. Everything between what’s now the 371 Main St. historical society and the Aurora Inn at 391 Main St. was “was pretty much wiped out.”

As a result, this year also marks the centennial of the founding of the village’s volunteer fire department.

“The very small group of residents who constituted a proto-fire department, sort of an early version of the fire department, they really had to call in a lot of help. It was an all-citizen thing. And almost right away they began to get organized and form a true volunteer fire department,” Schwab said.

Given the dual anniversary, Schwab approached Ann Balloni, Aurora’s clerk and the fire department’s emergency medical services captain.

“It was easy, or at least they made it easy, to pull together archival material,” Schwab said. “I had archival material, they had artifactual material, and my request to them was, ‘What is the story you want to tell?’ And I will help you tell it.”

Balloni said that a committee of firefighters, EMTs and life members was formed from the fire department. Together, they met with Schwab and pulled out scrapbooks and even the minutes from the first year of the department in 1919. Scrapbooks and the minutes book take their place in the museum exhibit among other artifacts, such as leather water pails from the bucket brigade days, photos, fire hats and fire grenades— filled with carbon tetra-chloride — that could be thrown at the base of a fire to help quench it.

“I think a thread that runs through has been community impact,” Schwab said of the exhibit. When one comes to the exhibit, she continued, they’ll see the impact fires can have on a community, as well as the importance of fighting those fires and saving lives.

The history, community and other threads of the exhibit come together at conversation events held twice a month. The next conversation, to be held May 21, will be an introduction to special teams at the 27-active-member Aurora Volunteer Fire Department, such as its dive team.

The conversations are an “equally important part of the show (and) what makes it all make sense,” Schwab said.

“This is a story that is sometimes poignant, and is sometimes funny, and is sometimes tragic, and it's all of these things. ... It tells it from the firefighter’s perspective, (and the community is) learning a lot about what happens when the fire siren blows.” Schwab added that it is “impressive” to learn about the volunteer firefighters’ immense commitment.

“And we’re learning, too, through the discussions and the shows that we’ve been doing,” Balloni added. “We’re hearing stories that we’ve never heard before.”

The conversations have themes, but are otherwise “very freewheeling,” Schwab said.

The theme of the first conversation was women in the fire service. It was attended by Marie Taylor, who was the first woman to become a volunteer firefighter in the state of New York, assistant chief Sarah Homick said. According to a news article in one of the scrapbooks, Taylor joined the Aurora department in 1967.

“And Sarah was one of the first volunteer female chiefs in New York state,” Balloni said.

The most recent event at the museum was centered on families in the fire service. Homick, whose father, Ron Jones, has been in the department for 63 years, said being part of the fire service is a family tradition.

“My grandfather was in the fire department, my dad was in the fire department and when I turned 16, he looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to the fire meeting tonight, right?’ and I said ‘yep.’ And here I am 24 years later,” Homick laughed.

Homick said she enjoys the events, as they bring together different generations of the same fire department family: “Having them come back and sharing the tradition that we’re carrying on and the history is just really, it’s funny. ... It’s emotional.”

JD Balloni, Ann Balloni’s son, enjoys being able to hear stories from people who were part of the department 50 or 60 years ago. He joined the fire department in 2008 after Homick gave a presentation at his high school, and is now assistant chief of the department.

“This I see as the basic human activity: You tell a story,” Schwab said. “It creates community by the very nature of it.”

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Staff writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or megan.ehrhart@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.

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